Supreme Court hears arguments in Texas death penalty case

TDCJ (Courtesy Photo) Spiritual advisors are instructed to stand in the corner of the death chamber, and are not allowed to pray out loud or touch the offender. 

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared to lean favorably toward the religious rights of John Henry Ramirez, a Texas death row inmate convicted of capital murder in 2008.

The court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Ramirez vs. Collier, a religious liberty case that challenges restrictions the State of Texas imposes upon religious advisers it allows to preside during executions. The court was not focused on the validity of executions. Rather, it examined whether individuals condemned to death have the right to religious comfort as they are killed.

In his filings, Ramirez's lawyer, Seth Kretzer, argued state officials violated Ramirez's right to practice religion when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice refused to give permission to his pastor to “lay hands” on him or pray audibly during the execution. The court stayed his execution, initially scheduled for Sept. 8, at the last minute in order to hear the arguments.

Ramirez was sentenced to death in 2008 after the robbery-murder of convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in Corpus Cristi, Texas. He stabbed Castro 29 times while on a robbery spree in 2004 in search of drug money. Castro reportedly had $1.25 on him. Ramirez then left for Mexico for three years before he was arrested.

The high court’s review comes after the Texas prison system in April reversed a two-year ban on spiritual advisers in the death chamber, but limited what they can do. Texas instituted the ban after the Supreme Court in 2019 halted the execution of Patrick Murphy, who had argued his religious freedom was being violated because his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t allowed to accompany him. Murphy remains on death row.

“The state acknowledges that it changed practices in the past two years in response to religious-liberty challenges from death-row inmates and this court’s suggestions of what the law may require. But instead of providing inmates of diverse faiths equal access to religious behavior traditionally allowed for decades in hundreds of TDCJ executions, the state’s strategy, in different forms, has been to achieve parity by ratcheting down the religious exercise it tolerates from anyone,” Kretzer said in court filings.

New execution protocols adopted in April established procedures to designate a non-TDCJ employed spiritual adviser to be present inside the chamber during executions. However, Kretzer argued that “nowhere in the new protocols is there any prohibition on a spiritual adviser touching an inmate or audibly praying during an execution.”

Kretzer argued that the rules for religious leaders in the execution room were not immediately made clear to Ramirez and that he filed his requests as soon as he was informed of what would be allowed. This led to a last minute delay in the case and ultimately Ramirez's stay.

“If the state is so worried about these things coming up at the last minute, all they have to do is actually tell us what the rules [are],” Kretzer said. “There's not a single thing in the prison manual or in the form or [where Ramirez] was told to sign that says what he could or could not do it.”

The state argued that Ramirez was intentionally trying to prolong his execution by making a religious claim — an argument Justice Samuel Alito seemed favorable toward.

However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in rehashing the timeline of events, said most of the time eaten up in the review process was taken up by the TDCJ.

The state also claimed it had compelling interest to ensure all executions were handled in a way that reduces the risk of a botched execution to zero, or nearly so. They are able to achieve this by placing restrictions on religious figures in the room and what they can do.

Sotomayor highlighted that of the last 13 federal executions that occurred in the last six months of the Trump Administration, 11 had religious figures present and in at least one instance, the clergy touched the inmate. In these cases there were no issues.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said there is no reason to believe religious figures would get in the way as seen in historical evidence.

“I think that what we're talking about here is pretty much standard religious services — the kinds of things that a priest or a pastor or rabbi or imam would do if they were bedside in a hospital and somebody would die,” Dunham said. “In that setting religious officials have no problem getting out of the way of letting the doctors do their job and there's no reason to believe that they would anymore get in the way of carrying out executions.”

Dunham added that since the court asked for a quick briefing, he believes a decision on the case will come relatively quickly.

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